Climate change poses a political, economic and moral challenge like history has never seen before. We have a decade to redesign our economic system to avoid catastrophic and irreversible environmental disaster. Are we up to the challenge?
Ignorance at this stage is inexcusable. Climate change could be the death of billions of people. The facts are inescapable. The numbers unequivocal.
Climate change presents an existential threat to our economy. The global economy needs to undergo a transformation of unprecedented scale. Capitalism has known no other than carbon. Fossil fuels has been its powerhouse for over 200 years. It is time we move beyond a system based on extraction, exploitation and exhaustion.
But before I look to the ideas we should champion, first, we must begin with the urgency. Climate change is a ticking time bomb. The IPCC’s recent report was a game-changer, cementing the consensus, not only do we need to undergo a transformation of unparalleled magnitude but we have 12 years to do so.
Next, we must address the scale. The global economy is set to double in 20 years, the earth’s population is heading towards 10 billion by mid-century and hundreds of millions are queuing up to join the global middle-class. The scale in which we must curb greenhouse emissions is enormous: as the population multiples, our task grows exponentially larger.
The good news is, the technology is already out there. A zero-carbon economy is not only technologically feasible but economically attractive too — something no one would have predicted 10 years ago. The technological revolution is well and truly underway. Now, the big challenge we must focus on is: how we get there politically.
Such a transformation is going to need genius, imagination, leadership, and willpower to flourish. Unfortunately these virtues are seemingly absent from our political process. Yet, as the next generation, we have the numbers to swing any political issue. We have the connectivity to mobilise faster than ever before. We are the first generation to be born with a truly global perspective on these issues, putting us in a prime position to take on climate change.
But are we seizing the opportunity? Whilst small, individual actions are on the rise – more lights are being turned off and more people carry KeepCups – we are missing the scale of transformation needed.
We must engage in the radical change needed to decouple economic growth from environmental impact. We must redefine how we make, consume and share in the 21st century. It is this system-level change we must mobilise behind. Anything less is inappropriate for the task at hand.
We have three objectives to get behind – a zero-carbon society, a ‘circular’ economy and natural capital valuation.
First, a zero-carbon economy. Complete decarbonisation of energy, transport and industry by mid-century. As I’ve said, the technology is here: cheap clean energy is a reality. But to further catalyse this transition we need a carbon tax, ideally a global one, but we must nationally lead by example. This ensures you pay the costs associated with polluting. This represents an exciting move from taxing ‘goods’ to taxing ‘bads’, shifting the tax burden from labour to resources and energy. This would discourage fossil fuel use and stimulate necessary innovation.
Second, a ‘circular economy’ – the antidote to our current ‘linear’ model which is defined by a ‘make-take-dispose’. This current economic system is stunningly wasteful. We need to drastically increase ‘resource productivity’. We must waste less and use more, and I’m talking on a global scale. For example, cars sit unused for 92% of their lives, in traffic for 3% and utilised for 5%. 30% of the global food chain does not make it onto plates. These are patterns seen across the world’s largest supply chains. We must turn this waste into wealth and extract the maximum value from given inputs.
Third, we must value natural capital – our global commons. Our oceans, our rainforests, our nature. These are our carbon sink. They are home to our fellow inhabitants and they are what makes this world special. Reforestation, sustainable agriculture, conservation – we do not have a chance without them.
These three objectives present a net-positive vision. There are opportunities galore: new sectors, value-chains and jobs. This speaks to one of the most important points of all, the cost of acting is nothing next to the cost of catastrophic climate change.
Throughout history, we look back on social precedents, shaking our heads, “what were they thinking”, from slavery to the denial of women’s rights. Today’s equivalent is climate change – indefensible not to act upon. And this historic window of opportunity lies on our generation’s shoulders. The choice is ours, catalyse fundamental reform or spectate our own downfall.